A boy age 11, allowed to leave the Erie County Youth Detention Center with a volunteer mentor who took the boy to his house and repeatedly sexually assaulted him.
A girl, age 9 or 10, violated and raped for several years by her foster father until the foster mother discovered the girl’s menstrual period had begun and asked that the child be removed from their home.
A total of 42 lawsuits have been filed against Erie County government under the Child Victims Act, which in 2019 opened up the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse cases, according to information provided by the County Attorney’s Office. The look-back window for filing allegations closed in August.
The human toll of these cases on abuse survivors is incalculable.
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But the public settlement costs could reach well into the millions of dollars.
Erie County, which is self-insured, has been wading through the cases. Of the six in-house lawyers who handle county litigation, four are working on Child Victim’s Act cases, said Jeremy Toth, first assistant county attorney overseeing the cases.
The county has also hired an “insurance archaeology” firm, Arcina Risk Group, to hunt for old file boxes and determine if the county had prior insurance coverage or third-party agency contracts that would limit liability exposure on cases that go back decades.
Mark Hatley, the firm’s senior insurance archeologist working with Erie County, said that since starting work in March, the company has determined Erie County has been self insured since roughly 1980. It did have outside insurance prior to then. The problem is finding out what insurance the county had and when, he said.
Uncovering that information means long shifts in the county storage graveyard, looking at documents stored on both paper and on microfilm, as well as digging through old legacy record-keeping systems that varied from department to department. In some cases, boxes of records were misplaced or destroyed.
But that still leaves tens of thousands of stored records boxes to wade through, he said.
The current task, as he described it: “How do you get 45,000 boxes to about 200?”
His company has found, though, that about half of the county’s Child Victims Act cases may be covered by some type of outside insurance. He estimated that within another month, his firm should be able to identify an insurance provider for about 80% of the cases that had outside insurance coverage prior to the county becoming self-insured.
The cases naming Erie County government as a defendant are a fraction of all cases filed in Erie County.
As previously reported, nearly 11,000 Child Victims Act lawsuits were filed in New York State over two years – 10 times the number of cases filed in other states that opened similar windows suspending the statute of limitations in cases of sexual abuse of children.
State courts in Western New York accounted for 1,474 of the filings, including 1,219 in Erie County – third most in the state. Manhattan, which is New York County, had the most lawsuits with 2,606, followed by Brooklyn, or Kings County, with 1,620.
Comparatively, the number of lawsuits naming Erie County government as a defendant is small. But the potential legal cost to the county is still a big X-factor.
The majority of county cases – 63%– involve foster family sexual abuse allegations. Another quarter involve other abuse by staff of county-affiliated agencies, such as organizations that provide residential treatment, care and education for county youth. Finally, a handful of cases involve allegations against a church, a day school or specific Erie County employees.
Among other findings, based on a Buffalo News analysis:
• Many cases are more than 30 years old. Although some cases date back to the 1960s, 23 cases – more than half – involve cases where abuse began in the 1970s or 1980s.
• A majority of cases involve pre-adolescent children. In more than half of the cases, plaintiffs stated that their sexual abuse began at age 10 or younger. In five of the cases, the abuse is alleged to have occurred at age 5 or younger.
• A majority of cases involve girls and 28% involved boys.
Lawyers representing Child Victims Act plaintiffs argue that at the time these alleged incidents of sexual abuse occurred, the county’s foster care system was broken and that officials were aware of the systemic failings that allowed children to fall victim to predators.
“These end up being very dark cases,” said Scott Duquin, a local lawyer with the national Herman Law firm, which specializes in sexual abuse cases. “There’s seemingly some structural deficiencies with how Erie County handles foster care.”
Despite repeated requests, Erie County administrators with the Department of Social Services were unable to provide The Buffalo News with information regarding the frequency of civil suits alleging child sexual abuse in more recent years, or information about how the county has changed its procedures or complaint investigations to prevent future abuse incidents from occurring.
Spokesman Peter Anderson said the county is in the process of gathering that information.
None of the county’s Child Victims Act cases have been resolved and most are still in the early discovery phases, Toth said. They join many other county civil suits that were delayed in being moved through the courts because of the Covid-19 related court shutdowns.
This year’s county budget line for settlements and legal judgments against the county is $5 million, but the county is rolling over another $2.7 million in unspent legal funds from last year to boost that account line, said Deputy Budget Director Benjamin Swanekamp.
To save money, the county is defending all cases in-house until the administration has a better sense of which cases the county will need to actively defend and which ones are another agency’s responsibility, Toth said.
While the courts are trying to process cases swiftly, he said, “I think some of them, certainly, will be lingering for years.”